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Title: The Game of Rat and Dragon

Author: Cordwainer Smith

Illustrator: Hunter

Release Date: August 5, 2009 [EBook #29614]

Language: English


*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE GAME OF RAT AND DRAGON ***




Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Adam Buchbinder, and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net








                         Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1955.
  Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
  the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.



                             The Game of

                            Rat and Dragon



                         By CORDWAINER SMITH



             _Only partners could fight this deadliest of
              wars--and the one way to dissolve the
              partnership was to be personally dissolved!_



                        Illustrated by HUNTER

       *       *       *       *       *




THE TABLE

[Illustration]


Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living. Underhill was furious
as he closed the door behind himself. It didn't make much sense to
wear a uniform and look like a soldier if people didn't appreciate
what you did.

He sat down in his chair, laid his head back in the headrest and
pulled the helmet down over his forehead.

As he waited for the pin-set to warm up, he remembered the girl in the
outer corridor. She had looked at it, then looked at him scornfully.

"Meow." That was all she had said. Yet it had cut him like a knife.

What did she think he was--a fool, a loafer, a uniformed nonentity?
Didn't she know that for every half hour of pinlighting, he got a
minimum of two months' recuperation in the hospital?

By now the set was warm. He felt the squares of space around him,
sensed himself at the middle of an immense grid, a cubic grid, full
of nothing. Out in that nothingness, he could sense the hollow aching
horror of space itself and could feel the terrible anxiety which his
mind encountered whenever it met the faintest trace of inert dust.

As he relaxed, the comforting solidity of the Sun, the clock-work of
the familiar planets and the Moon rang in on him. Our own solar system
was as charming and as simple as an ancient cuckoo clock filled with
familiar ticking and with reassuring noises. The odd little moons of
Mars swung around their planet like frantic mice, yet their regularity
was itself an assurance that all was well. Far above the plane of the
ecliptic, he could feel half a ton of dust more or less drifting
outside the lanes of human travel.

Here there was nothing to fight, nothing to challenge the mind, to
tear the living soul out of a body with its roots dripping in
effluvium as tangible as blood.

Nothing ever moved in on the Solar System. He could wear the pin-set
forever and be nothing more than a sort of telepathic astronomer, a
man who could feel the hot, warm protection of the Sun throbbing and
burning against his living mind.

       *       *       *       *       *

Woodley came in.

"Same old ticking world," said Underhill. "Nothing to report. No
wonder they didn't develop the pin-set until they began to planoform.
Down here with the hot Sun around us, it feels so good and so quiet.
You can feel everything spinning and turning. It's nice and sharp and
compact. It's sort of like sitting around home."

Woodley grunted. He was not much given to flights of fantasy.

Undeterred, Underhill went on, "It must have been pretty good to have
been an Ancient Man. I wonder why they burned up their world with war.
They didn't have to planoform. They didn't have to go out to earn
their livings among the stars. They didn't have to dodge the Rats or
play the Game. They couldn't have invented pinlighting because they
didn't have any need of it, did they, Woodley?"

Woodley grunted, "Uh-huh." Woodley was twenty-six years old and due to
retire in one more year. He already had a farm picked out. He had
gotten through ten years of hard work pinlighting with the best of
them. He had kept his sanity by not thinking very much about his job,
meeting the strains of the task whenever he had to meet them and
thinking nothing more about his duties until the next emergency arose.

Woodley never made a point of getting popular among the Partners.
None of the Partners liked him very much. Some of them even resented
him. He was suspected of thinking ugly thoughts of the Partners on
occasion, but since none of the Partners ever thought a complaint in
articulate form, the other pinlighters and the Chiefs of the
Instrumentality left him alone.

Underhill was still full of the wonder of their job. Happily he
babbled on, "What does happen to us when we planoform? Do you think
it's sort of like dying? Did you ever see anybody who had his soul
pulled out?"

"Pulling souls is just a way of talking about it," said Woodley.
"After all these years, nobody knows whether we have souls or not."

"But I saw one once. I saw what Dogwood looked like when he came
apart. There was something funny. It looked wet and sort of sticky as
if it were bleeding and it went out of him--and you know what they did
to Dogwood? They took him away, up in that part of the hospital where
you and I never go--way up at the top part where the others are, where
the others always have to go if they are alive after the Rats of the
Up-and-Out have gotten them."

Woodley sat down and lit an ancient pipe. He was burning something
called tobacco in it. It was a dirty sort of habit, but it made him
look very dashing and adventurous.

"Look here, youngster. You don't have to worry about that stuff.
Pinlighting is getting better all the time. The Partners are getting
better. I've seen them pinlight two Rats forty-six million miles apart
in one and a half milliseconds. As long as people had to try to work
the pin-sets themselves, there was always the chance that with a
minimum of four hundred milliseconds for the human mind to set a
pinlight, we wouldn't light the Rats up fast enough to protect our
planoforming ships. The Partners have changed all that. Once they get
going, they're faster than Rats. And they always will be. I know it's
not easy, letting a Partner share your mind--"

"It's not easy for them, either," said Underhill.

"Don't worry about them. They're not human. Let them take care of
themselves. I've seen more pinlighters go crazy from monkeying around
with Partners than I have ever seen caught by the Rats. How many do
you actually know of them that got grabbed by Rats?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Underhill looked down at his fingers, which shone green and purple in
the vivid light thrown by the tuned-in pin-set, and counted ships.
The thumb for the _Andromeda_, lost with crew and passengers, the
index finger and the middle finger for _Release Ships_ 43 and 56,
found with their pin-sets burned out and every man, woman, and child
on board dead or insane. The ring finger, the little finger, and the
thumb of the other hand were the first three battleships to be lost to
the Rats--lost as people realized that there was something out there
_underneath space itself_ which was alive, capricious and malevolent.

Planoforming was sort of funny. It felt like like--

Like nothing much.

Like the twinge of a mild electric shock.

Like the ache of a sore tooth bitten on for the first time.

Like a slightly painful flash of light against the eyes.

Yet in that time, a forty-thousand-ton ship lifting free above Earth
disappeared somehow or other into two dimensions and appeared half a
light-year or fifty light-years off.

At one moment, he would be sitting in the Fighting Room, the pin-set
ready and the familiar Solar System ticking around inside his head.
For a second or a year (he could never tell how long it really was,
subjectively), the funny little flash went through him and then he was
loose in the Up-and-Out, the terrible open spaces between the stars,
where the stars themselves felt like pimples on his telepathic mind
and the planets were too far away to be sensed or read.

Somewhere in this outer space, a gruesome death awaited, death and
horror of a kind which Man had never encountered until he reached out
for inter-stellar space itself. Apparently the light of the suns kept
the Dragons away.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dragons. That was what people called them. To ordinary people, there
was nothing, nothing except the shiver of planoforming and the hammer
blow of sudden death or the dark spastic note of lunacy descending
into their minds.

But to the telepaths, they were Dragons.

In the fraction of a second between the telepaths' awareness of a
hostile something out in the black, hollow nothingness of space and
the impact of a ferocious, ruinous psychic blow against all living
things within the ship, the telepaths had sensed entities something
like the Dragons of ancient human lore, beasts more clever than
beasts, demons more tangible than demons, hungry vortices of aliveness
and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin tenuous matter
between the stars.

It took a surviving ship to bring back the news--a ship in which, by
sheer chance, a telepath had a light beam ready, turning it out at the
innocent dust so that, within the panorama of his mind, the Dragon
dissolved into nothing at all and the other passengers, themselves
non-telepathic, went about their way not realizing that their own
immediate deaths had been averted.

From then on, it was easy--almost.

       *       *       *       *       *

Planoforming ships always carried telepaths. Telepaths had their
sensitiveness enlarged to an immense range by the pin-sets, which were
telepathic amplifiers adapted to the mammal mind. The pin-sets in turn
were electronically geared into small dirigible light bombs. Light did
it.

Light broke up the Dragons, allowed the ships to reform
three-dimensionally, skip, skip, skip, as they moved from star to
star.

The odds suddenly moved down from a hundred to one against mankind to
sixty to forty in mankind's favor.

This was not enough. The telepaths were trained to become
ultrasensitive, trained to become aware of the Dragons in less than a
millisecond.

But it was found that the Dragons could move a million miles in just
under two milliseconds and that this was not enough for the human mind
to activate the light beams.

Attempts had been made to sheath the ships in light at all times.

This defense wore out.

As mankind learned about the Dragons, so too, apparently, the Dragons
learned about mankind. Somehow they flattened their own bulk and came
in on extremely flat trajectories very quickly.

Intense light was needed, light of sunlike intensity. This could be
provided only by light bombs. Pinlighting came into existence.

Pinlighting consisted of the detonation of ultra-vivid miniature
photonuclear bombs, which converted a few ounces of a magnesium
isotope into pure visible radiance.

The odds kept coming down in mankind's favor, yet ships were being
lost.

It became so bad that people didn't even want to find the ships
because the rescuers knew what they would see. It was sad to bring
back to Earth three hundred bodies ready for burial and two hundred or
three hundred lunatics, damaged beyond repair, to be wakened, and fed,
and cleaned, and put to sleep, wakened and fed again until their lives
were ended.

[Illustration]

Telepaths tried to reach into the minds of the psychotics who had been
damaged by the Dragons, but they found nothing there beyond vivid
spouting columns of fiery terror bursting from the primordial id
itself, the volcanic source of life.

Then came the Partners.

Man and Partner could do together what Man could not do alone. Men had
the intellect. Partners had the speed.

The Partners rode their tiny craft, no larger than footballs, outside
the spaceships. They planoformed with the ships. They rode beside them
in their six-pound craft ready to attack.

The tiny ships of the Partners were swift. Each carried a dozen
pinlights, bombs no bigger than thimbles.

The pinlighters threw the Partners--quite literally threw--by means of
mind-to-firing relays direct at the Dragons.

What seemed to be Dragons to the human mind appeared in the form of
gigantic Rats in the minds of the Partners.

Out in the pitiless nothingness of space, the Partners' minds
responded to an instinct as old as life. The Partners attacked,
striking with a speed faster than Man's, going from attack to attack
until the Rats or themselves were destroyed. Almost all the time, it
was the Partners who won.

With the safety of the inter-stellar skip, skip, skip of the ships,
commerce increased immensely, the population of all the colonies went
up, and the demand for trained Partners increased.

Underhill and Woodley were a part of the third generation of
pinlighters and yet, to them, it seemed as though their craft had
endured forever.

[Illustration]

Gearing space into minds by means of the pin-set, adding the Partners
to those minds, keying up the mind for the tension of a fight on which
all depended--this was more than human synapses could stand for long.
Underhill needed his two months' rest after half an hour of fighting.
Woodley needed his retirement after ten years of service. They were
young. They were good. But they had limitations.

So much depended on the choice of Partners, so much on the sheer luck
of who drew whom.




THE SHUFFLE


Father Moontree and the little girl named West entered the room. They
were the other two pinlighters. The human complement of the Fighting
Room was now complete.

Father Moontree was a red-faced man of forty-five who had lived the
peaceful life of a farmer until he reached his fortieth year. Only
then, belatedly, did the authorities find he was telepathic and agree
to let him late in life enter upon the career of pinlighter. He did
well at it, but he was fantastically old for this kind of business.

Father Moontree looked at the glum Woodley and the musing Underhill.
"How're the youngsters today? Ready for a good fight?"

"Father always wants a fight," giggled the little girl named West. She
was such a little little girl. Her giggle was high and childish. She
looked like the last person in the world one would expect to find in
the rough, sharp dueling of pinlighting.

Underhill had been amused one time when he found one of the most
sluggish of the Partners coming away happy from contact with the mind
of the girl named West.

Usually the Partners didn't care much about the human minds with which
they were paired for the journey. The Partners seemed to take the
attitude that human minds were complex and fouled up beyond belief,
anyhow. No Partner ever questioned the superiority of the human mind,
though very few of the Partners were much impressed by that
superiority.

The Partners liked people. They were willing to fight with them. They
were even willing to die for them. But when a Partner liked an
individual the way, for example, that Captain Wow or the Lady May
liked Underhill, the liking had nothing to do with intellect. It was a
matter of temperament, of feel.

Underhill knew perfectly well that Captain Wow regarded his,
Underhill's, brains as silly. What Captain Wow liked was Underhill's
friendly emotional structure, the cheerfulness and glint of wicked
amusement that shot through Underhill's unconscious thought patterns,
and the gaiety with which Underhill faced danger. The words, the
history books, the ideas, the science--Underhill could sense all that
in his own mind, reflected back from Captain Wow's mind, as so much
rubbish.

Miss West looked at Underhill. "I bet you've put stickum on the
stones."

"I did not!"

Underhill felt his ears grow red with embarrassment. During his
novitiate, he had tried to cheat in the lottery because he got
particularly fond of a special Partner, a lovely young mother named
Murr. It was so much easier to operate with Murr and she was so
affectionate toward him that he forgot pinlighting was hard work and
that he was not instructed to have a good time with his Partner. They
were both designed and prepared to go into deadly battle together.

One cheating had been enough. They had found him out and he had been
laughed at for years.

Father Moontree picked up the imitation-leather cup and shook the
stone dice which assigned them their Partners for the trip. By senior
rights, he took first draw.

       *       *       *       *       *

He grimaced. He had drawn a greedy old character, a tough old male
whose mind was full of slobbering thoughts of food, veritable oceans
full of half-spoiled fish. Father Moontree had once said that he
burped cod liver oil for weeks after drawing that particular glutton,
so strongly had the telepathic image of fish impressed itself upon his
mind. Yet the glutton was a glutton for danger as well as for fish. He
had killed sixty-three Dragons, more than any other Partner in the
service, and was quite literally worth his weight in gold.

The little girl West came next. She drew Captain Wow. When she saw who
it was, she smiled.

"I _like_ him," she said. "He's such fun to fight with. He feels so
nice and cuddly in my mind."

"Cuddly, hell," said Woodley. "I've been in his mind, too. It's the
most leering mind in this ship, bar none."

"Nasty man," said the little girl. She said it declaratively, without
reproach.

Underhill, looking at her, shivered.

He didn't see how she could take Captain Wow so calmly. Captain Wow's
mind _did_ leer. When Captain Wow got excited in the middle of a
battle, confused images of Dragons, deadly Rats, luscious beds, the
smell of fish, and the shock of space all scrambled together in his
mind as he and Captain Wow, their consciousnesses linked together
through the pin-set, became a fantastic composite of human being and
Persian cat.

That's the trouble with working with cats, thought Underhill. It's a
pity that nothing else anywhere will serve as Partner. Cats were all
right once you got in touch with them telepathically. They were smart
enough to meet the needs of the fight, but their motives and desires
were certainly different from those of humans.

They were companionable enough as long as you thought tangible images
at them, but their minds just closed up and went to sleep when you
recited Shakespeare or Colegrove, or if you tried to tell them what
space was.

It was sort of funny realizing that the Partners who were so grim and
mature out here in space were the same cute little animals that people
had used as pets for thousands of years back on Earth. He had
embarrassed himself more than once while on the ground saluting
perfectly ordinary non-telepathic cats because he had forgotten for
the moment that they were not Partners.

He picked up the cup and shook out his stone dice.

He was lucky--he drew the Lady May.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Lady May was the most thoughtful Partner he had ever met. In her,
the finely bred pedigree mind of a Persian cat had reached one of its
highest peaks of development. She was more complex than any human
woman, but the complexity was all one of emotions, memory, hope and
discriminated experience--experience sorted through without benefit of
words.

When he had first come into contact with her mind, he was astonished at
its clarity. With her he remembered her kittenhood. He remembered every
mating experience she had ever had. He saw in a half-recognizable
gallery all the other pinlighters with whom she had been paired for the
fight. And he saw himself radiant, cheerful and desirable.

He even thought he caught the edge of a longing--

A very flattering and yearning thought: _What a pity he is not a cat._

Woodley picked up the last stone. He drew what he deserved--a sullen,
scared old tomcat with none of the verve of Captain Wow. Woodley's
Partner was the most animal of all the cats on the ship, a low,
brutish type with a dull mind. Even telepathy had not refined his
character. His ears were half chewed off from the first fights in
which he had engaged.

He was a serviceable fighter, nothing more.

Woodley grunted.

Underhill glanced at him oddly. Didn't Woodley ever do anything but
grunt?

Father Moontree looked at the other three. "You might as well get your
Partners now. I'll let the Scanner know we're ready to go into the
Up-and-Out."




THE DEAL


Underhill spun the combination lock on the Lady May's cage. He woke
her gently and took her into his arms. She humped her back
luxuriously, stretched her claws, started to purr, thought better of
it, and licked him on the wrist instead. He did not have the pin-set
on, so their minds were closed to each other, but in the angle of her
mustache and in the movement of her ears, he caught some sense of
gratification she experienced in finding him as her Partner.

He talked to her in human speech, even though speech meant nothing to
a cat when the pin-set was not on.

"It's a damn shame, sending a sweet little thing like you whirling
around in the coldness of nothing to hunt for Rats that are bigger and
deadlier than all of us put together. You didn't ask for this kind of
fight, did you?"

For answer, she licked his hand, purred, tickled his cheek with her
long fluffy tail, turned around and faced him, golden eyes shining.

For a moment, they stared at each other, man squatting, cat standing
erect on her hind legs, front claws digging into his knee. Human eyes
and cat eyes looked across an immensity which no words could meet, but
which affection spanned in a single glance.

"Time to get in," he said.

She walked docilely into her spheroid carrier. She climbed in. He saw
to it that her miniature pin-set rested firmly and comfortably against
the base of her brain. He made sure that her claws were padded so that
she could not tear herself in the excitement of battle.

Softly he said to her, "Ready?"

For answer, she preened her back as much as her harness would permit
and purred softly within the confines of the frame that held her.

He slapped down the lid and watched the sealant ooze around the seam.
For a few hours, she was welded into her projectile until a workman
with a short cutting arc would remove her after she had done her duty.

       *       *       *       *       *

He picked up the entire projectile and slipped it into the ejection
tube. He closed the door of the tube, spun the lock, seated himself in
his chair, and put his own pin-set on.

Once again he flung the switch.

He sat in a small room, _small_, _small_, _warm_, _warm_, the bodies
of the other three people moving close around him, the tangible lights
in the ceiling bright and heavy against his closed eyelids.

As the pin-set warmed, the room fell away. The other people ceased to
be people and became small glowing heaps of fire, embers, dark red
fire, with the consciousness of life burning like old red coals in a
country fireplace.

As the pin-set warmed a little more, he felt Earth just below him,
felt the ship slipping away, felt the turning Moon as it swung on the
far side of the world, felt the planets and the hot, clear goodness of
the Sun which kept the Dragons so far from mankind's native ground.

Finally, he reached complete awareness.

He was telepathically alive to a range of millions of miles. He felt
the dust which he had noticed earlier high above the ecliptic. With a
thrill of warmth and tenderness, he felt the consciousness of the Lady
May pouring over into his own. Her consciousness was as gentle and
clear and yet sharp to the taste of his mind as if it were scented
oil. It felt relaxing and reassuring. He could sense her welcome of
him. It was scarcely a thought, just a raw emotion of greeting.

At last they were one again.

In a tiny remote corner of his mind, as tiny as the smallest toy he
had ever seen in his childhood, he was still aware of the room and the
ship, and of Father Moontree picking up a telephone and speaking to a
Scanner captain in charge of the ship.

His telepathic mind caught the idea long before his ears could frame
the words. The actual sound followed the idea the way that thunder on
an ocean beach follows the lightning inward from far out over the
seas.

"The Fighting Room is ready. Clear to planoform, sir."




THE PLAY


Underhill was always a little exasperated the way that Lady May
experienced things before he did.

He was braced for the quick vinegar thrill of planoforming, but he
caught her report of it before his own nerves could register what
happened.

Earth had fallen so far away that he groped for several milliseconds
before he found the Sun in the upper rear right-hand corner of his
telepathic mind.

That was a good jump, he thought. This way we'll get there in four or
five skips.

A few hundred miles outside the ship, the Lady May thought back at
him, "O warm, O generous, O gigantic man! O brave, O friendly, O
tender and huge Partner! O wonderful with you, with you so good, good,
good, warm, warm, now to fight, now to go, good with you...."

He knew that she was not thinking words, that his mind took the clear
amiable babble of her cat intellect and translated it into images
which his own thinking could record and understand.

Neither one of them was absorbed in the game of mutual greetings. He
reached out far beyond her range of perception to see if there was
anything near the ship. It was funny how it was possible to do two
things at once. He could scan space with his pin-set mind and yet at
the same time catch a vagrant thought of hers, a lovely, affectionate
thought about a son who had had a golden face and a chest covered with
soft, incredibly downy white fur.

While he was still searching, he caught the warning from her.

_We jump again!_

And so they had. The ship had moved to a second planoform. The stars
were different. The Sun was immeasurably far behind. Even the nearest
stars were barely in contact. This was good Dragon country, this open,
nasty, hollow kind of space. He reached farther, faster, sensing and
looking for danger, ready to fling the Lady May at danger wherever he
found it.

Terror blazed up in his mind, so sharp, so clear, that it came through
as a physical wrench.

The little girl named West had found something--something immense,
long, black, sharp, greedy, horrific. She flung Captain Wow at it.

Underhill tried to keep his own mind clear. "Watch out!" he shouted
telepathically at the others, trying to move the Lady May around.

At one corner of the battle, he felt the lustful rage of Captain Wow
as the big Persian tomcat detonated lights while he approached the
streak of dust which threatened the ship and the people within.

The lights scored near-misses.

The dust flattened itself, changing from the shape of a sting-ray into
the shape of a spear.

Not three milliseconds had elapsed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Father Moontree was talking human words and was saying in a voice that
moved like cold molasses out of a heavy jar, "C-A-P-T-A-I-N."
Underhill knew that the sentence was going to be "Captain, move fast!"

The battle would be fought and finished before Father Moontree got
through talking.

Now, fractions of a millisecond later, the Lady May was directly in
line.

Here was where the skill and speed of the Partners came in. She could
react faster than he. She could see the threat as an immense Rat
coming direct at her.

She could fire the light-bombs with a discrimination which he might
miss.

He was connected with her mind, but he could not follow it.

His consciousness absorbed the tearing wound inflicted by the alien
enemy. It was like no wound on Earth--raw, crazy pain which started
like a burn at his navel. He began to writhe in his chair.

Actually he had not yet had time to move a muscle when the Lady May
struck back at their enemy.

Five evenly spaced photonuclear bombs blazed out across a hundred
thousand miles.

The pain in his mind and body vanished.

[Illustration]

He felt a moment of fierce, terrible, feral elation running through
the mind of the Lady May as she finished her kill. It was always
disappointing to the cats to find out that their enemies whom they
sensed as gigantic space Rats disappeared at the moment of
destruction.

Then he felt her hurt, the pain and the fear that swept over both of
them as the battle, quicker than the movement of an eyelid, had come
and gone. In the same instant, there came the sharp and acid twinge
of planoform.

Once more the ship went skip.

He could hear Woodley thinking at him. "You don't have to bother much.
This old son of a gun and I will take over for a while."

Twice again the twinge, the skip.

He had no idea where he was until the lights of the Caledonia space
board shone below.

[Illustration]

With a weariness that lay almost beyond the limits of thought, he
threw his mind back into rapport with the pin-set, fixing the Lady
May's projectile gently and neatly in its launching tube.

She was half dead with fatigue, but he could feel the beat of her
heart, could listen to her panting, and he grasped the grateful edge
of a thanks reaching from her mind to his.




THE SCORE


They put him in the hospital at Caledonia.

The doctor was friendly but firm. "You actually got touched by that
Dragon. That's as close a shave as I've ever seen. It's all so quick
that it'll be a long time before we know what happened scientifically,
but I suppose you'd be ready for the insane asylum now if the contact
had lasted several tenths of a millisecond longer. What kind of cat
did you have out in front of you?"

Underhill felt the words coming out of him slowly. Words were such a
lot of trouble compared with the speed and the joy of thinking, fast
and sharp and clear, mind to mind! But words were all that could reach
ordinary people like this doctor.

His mouth moved heavily as he articulated words, "Don't call our
Partners cats. The right thing to call them is Partners. They fight
for us in a team. You ought to know we call them Partners, not cats.
How is mine?"

"I don't know," said the doctor contritely. "We'll find out for you.
Meanwhile, old man, you take it easy. There's nothing but rest that
can help you. Can you make yourself sleep, or would you like us to
give you some kind of sedative?"

"I can sleep," said Underhill. "I just want to know about the Lady
May."

The nurse joined in. She was a little antagonistic. "Don't you want to
know about the other people?"

"They're okay," said Underhill. "I knew that before I came in here."

He stretched his arms and sighed and grinned at them. He could see
they were relaxing and were beginning to treat him as a person instead
of a patient.

"I'm all right," he said. "Just let me know when I can go see my
Partner."

A new thought struck him. He looked wildly at the doctor. "They didn't
send her off with the ship, did they?"

"I'll find out right away," said the doctor. He gave Underhill a
reassuring squeeze of the shoulder and left the room.

The nurse took a napkin off a goblet of chilled fruit juice.

       *       *       *       *       *

Underhill tried to smile at her. There seemed to be something wrong
with the girl. He wished she would go away. First she had started to
be friendly and now she was distant again. It's a nuisance being
telepathic, he thought. You keep trying to reach even when you are not
making contact.

Suddenly she swung around on him.

"You pinlighters! You and your damn cats!"

Just as she stamped out, he burst into her mind. He saw himself a
radiant hero, clad in his smooth suede uniform, the pin-set crown
shining like ancient royal jewels around his head. He saw his own
face, handsome and masculine, shining out of her mind. He saw himself
very far away and he saw himself as she hated him.

She hated him in the secrecy of her own mind. She hated him because he
was--she thought--proud, and strange, and rich, better and more
beautiful than people like her.

He cut off the sight of her mind and, as he buried his face in the
pillow, he caught an image of the Lady May.

"She _is_ a cat," he thought. "That's all she is--a _cat_!"

But that was not how his mind saw her--quick beyond all dreams of
speed, sharp, clever, unbelievably graceful, beautiful, wordless and
undemanding.

Where would he ever find a woman who could compare with her?

--CORDWAINER SMITH

[Illustration]

       *       *       *       *       *






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